Prof. Sky Gilbert

“I have conversations in my head all the time. I think in dialogue. That means I’m either crazy or a writer.”

Given those choices, U of G drama professor Sky Gilbert settled on being a writer early on.  Always drawn to the theatre, he did some acting but soon realized that he enjoyed writing more, and created his first play in his teens. Since then he has had some 40 plays produced and has directed many of them.

He shared some of his expertise as a playwright ─ the multi-talented Gilbert also writes poetry and novels ─ during last week’s series of writers’ workshops hosted by the University of Guelph Library.

Gilbert admits it was difficult to condense his passion for the theatre and the written word into a half-day workshop, but he encouraged participants to work through their ideas and tried to help them overcome the challenges that often stop would-be playwrights from finishing a play.

What beginning playwrights need to know, Gilbert says, is that there is no one way to write a play. That’s why he’s sceptical of writing textbooks, which tend to have a formula that can’t fit everyone. Each writer, he believes, needs to find an approach that works, but also be aware of the pitfalls and risks of the choices he or she makes.

Gilbert’s explanation of the components of writing plays is based on five of Aristotle’s six elements of drama. He leaves out music, because it is not an integral part of most plays, although Gilbert himself has written musicals. The remaining elements are character, plot, image, dialogue and theme. “You can decide you want to emphasize one or two of these, or leave some out altogether,” he says, “but you must then be very strong in the others.”

Want stronger dialogue, for example? “Go out and listen to people,” says Gilbert. “The Irish playwright J.M. Synge said he listened through the chinks in the wall to hear the maids gossip. You can ride on a bus and listen to the people talking to each other, and then try to reconstruction the conversation when you get home.” Another approach is to read plays by writers known to be good at dialogue, such as Harold Pinter, and analyze how the dialogue is constructed.

And if you are going to hit people over the head with your theme, he adds:  “Do it in a way that they will find pleasurable.” Avoiding preachiness is the big challenge when your play emphasizes theme, but you also have to watch out for going too far the other way, Gilbert says. “I sometimes have the problem of making my play too entertaining; I put so much sugar coating on the pill that people completely miss the pill.”

He adds that leaving out or diminishing some elements and emphasizing others can make a strong and sometimes more interesting play, as long as the playwright is able to keep the balance.

Another challenge for playwrights: other people. Gilbert says that the theatre is all about collaboration, and the creation of a play requires intensive work with your theatre community. You may write the words in the script, but your play will be interpreted by actors, directors and others. “That’s fun, because you get to meet and work with new people, but it can also be stressful,” says Gilbert. “That’s why I write novels and poetry too.”